In May 2019, The New York Times’ food and climate desks collaborated to help their readers understand the relationship between dietary choices and greenhouse gas emissions. The project embodied a primary function of journalism—demonstrating the power of individual actions to impact national and global issues. Unfortunately, the associated article and quiz failed at another essential aspect of journalism—communicating the richness and complexity of a problem that requires varied solutions.
The Times’ piece hammered a singular takeaway: Animal based foods, especially red meats, are bad; plant-based foods are good. I’d like to offer an alternative. The Times should encourage their readers to learn about hunting and fishing and recognize that climate-neutral meats are a staple in many Americans’ diets.
Hunting isn’t as fringe as the media might have you believe. More than 11 million Americans participated in hunting in 2016—about 5%—and while that’s a small fraction of our population, it’s similar to the number of Americans who identify as vegetarian, according to a Gallup poll from 2018 (an additional 3% identify as vegan). A Pew Research Poll from 2016 reported similar numbers. Despite this parity, vegetarians are often highlighted in discussions of food choice and sustainability while hunters are generally excluded.
As a hunter, conservationist, and citizen who devotes significant energy to both my food choices and anthropogenic changes to our world and climate, I took last week’s quiz in the Times, checking the boxes that best represented my previous days’ meals (cereal and fruit for breakfast, steak over salad for lunch, burger and vegetables for dinner). Upon clicking submit, a bright red box appeared with the word HIGH in block text. It hovered, center screen, a glowing indictment that my dietary choices brand me as a climate offender of the highest order.
The quiz went on to say, “This group is responsible for more than 40% of total diet-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States per day,” and offered the following explanation: “Picking steak for dinner pretty much guarantees that you end up in the high-impact category.”
I don’t dispute that raising, processing, and shipping animal products (especially beef) emits high levels of greenhouse gasses. Nor do I count myself among the shrinking margins of “climate deniers.” The climate is changing; we are the variable. Period. I do, however, disagree with the characterization of my diet as a significant contributor.
Yes, I ate red meat on the day in question—twice in fact—but none of that meat came from a ranch, feedlot, or processing facility. It wasn’t shipped over any oceans or trucked across the country. Humans, and our associated systems and byproducts, had nothing to do with its creation. The steak traveled 20 miles, the burger 315. I can recount this specific history because I participated in harvesting, butchering, and processing every ounce of it.
The steak came off the hindquarters of a whitetail deer I killed during the first snowstorm of 2018. The burger came from the front shoulder of an elk that my best friend shot in the badlands of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. He killed the bull just before sunset, and we spent the entire night carrying loads of meat out on our backs.
Red meat, or any other meat for that matter, isn’t a monolith. Meats traverse different narratives from field to plate, and the texture of those journeys emerge in their related greenhouse gas emissions as much as their flavor profiles.
The Times article noted that not all meat carries equivalent impact: “Beef from Brazil can have 10 times or more the climate impact of beef from the United States. Even within the United States, there can be significant variation in the carbon footprint of cattle herds.”
This slouches toward nuance, but fails to even recognize wild game as a choice. The Times recently covered the rise of hunting among a younger generation that’s increasingly food conscious, a trend that’s beginning to gain significant traction. So why did they choose to ignore us in their most recent articles?
Much of our community either eats wild meat exclusively or supplements their diet with wild meat. Here at MeatEater, we spend our days encouraging and educating more people to participate in hunting, processing, and preparing meat with virtually no associated greenhouse gas emissions. The Times, and other major news outlets, need to start recognizing hunters and anglers in substantive conversations about food, ecosystems, and the environment. We know a whole lot more about our food than Brooklyn hipsters shopping at boutique butchers.
Our ecosystems can’t support enough wildlife for every American to supplant farmed animal flesh with wild. But certain game populations are robust enough to sustain a lot more people harvesting at least some of their own meat. Whitetail deer, for example, have an estimated population near 30 million in the United States (up from an estimated 300,000 in 1930).
Hunting isn’t a unilateral solution to the myriad challenges of feeding a global population approaching 8 billion, but neither are current practices of industrial agriculture. If we want to realize meaningful change in our food systems and our planet, we all need to admit the complexity of that imperative—hunters and vegetarians alike—and admit that no single, simple solution will be sufficient.
I’m not claiming that hunters are greenhouse gas saints; I’m not even claiming that all, or even most, hunters think about the environmental impacts of their diet. Vegetarianism, however, isn’t the only option for rectifying our food system’s problems. While I respect anyone who makes thoughtful consumptive choices, holding up meatless eating as the only alternative is not only incorrect, it’s alienating to the millions of us who take responsibility for providing sustainable meat for ourselves, our friends, and our families.
That inaccurate narrative also marginalizes a historic practice that allows people to keep animal protein in their diet without increasing their carbon footprint.
I wish more Americans would consider hunting healthy populations of wild game and realize that it offers a viable and progressive choice for the dinner table. A workable step in that direction would be for major news outlets, like The New York Times, to recognize that hunting and hunters are legitimate stakeholders in conversations about thoughtful eating.
Note: Venison sold in stores and restaurants is neither sustainable nor wild; it’s mostly factory ranched, arguably carries more negative impact than beef, and directly contributes to the spread of CWD.